The 45th Annual Native Youth Olympics wrapped up in Anchorage this weekend. More than 500 athletes from the furthest corners of the state were joined for the first time in decades by a foreign delegation, a team from the Yukon Territory in Canada. The tournament continues to grow, which organizers believe is a reflection of more deliberate efforts to promote traditional values across the state.
The seal-hop is one of 10 events jammed into three days of competition, held for the first time ever on the arena floor of the Alaska Airlines Center. And while it’s thrilling, it can be hard to watch high-schoolers in push-up pose bounce on knuckles and fists for dozens of feet before collapsing. It’s supposed to hurt.
“Seal hop is an endurance game,” explained Marjorie Tahbone, a coach from Nome and former NYO champion. “It also is a game that tests your ability to handle pain.”
The NYO games are adaptations of traditional practices and competitions rooted in subsistence.
“If you can imagine a long time ago, the young hunters would have to go out and they would have to stalk the seal, and they would have to get as close as possible in order to harpoon it,” Tahbone said, “the seal-hop was invented just for that purpose.”
The games were a way for hunters to keep their bodies in shape during the cold, dark winter months. Some, like the Indian stick-pool, were good practice for the strong wrists you need grabbing salmon by the tail on a fish wheel. Others have evolved to carry different lessons. The one foot high kick was originally a way to signal a successful hunt from far across the sea ice.
Though nowadays, Tahbone said, the real lesson is concentration, “Which was and is still is so important to surviving out in the Arctic when you’re hunting, and when you’re waiting for that seal patiently and trying to stay focused. Because if you don’t pay attention you’re going to miss it, you’re going to lose your chance to feed your family, you’re going to miss it. And that directly applies to our life now.”
Tahbone and many of her fellow coaches believe the games are a way of protecting and reinforcing the value system that was built into the subsistence cultures spread across Alaska. And though the hunting methods have changed, the values are durable.
“The games still definitely connect us to the way we hunt today,” said Nick Hanson, who has coached in Unalakleet for six years, “it is driven by the ancestors and by the traditions that we’ve held for years and years and years, but we now hunt with boats and guns instead of ice-hopping…but we still want the other hunter in the boat to be just as strong as we are, we still want to share what we catch with our community, and that’s what the games are all about.”
Hanson is a bit of an NYO super-star. He holds records, received an award this year for embodying traditional values, and even did a back-flip during the blanket-toss. He’s also appearing next month on the TV show American Ninja Warrior. But the athletics for him are just a fringe-benefit to the cultural connections that are part the games. One of his athletes, Makiyan Ivanoff, a senior in the Bering Strait School District, thinks NYO is different from other sports he plays because fundamentally it’s not about competition.
“I mean we’re competing against each other,” Ivanoff said after winning one-foot high kick, “but everybody is trying to max out, and everybody wants each other to max out and do their best.”
At the end of the tournament, Ivanoff also took home the Sportsmanship award.
Nicole Johnston is one of the chief organizers for the NYO, and held the record for women’s two-foot high kick for 25 years. Since her days competing, the tournament has tripled in size, in part because Alaskans are working more deliberately to protect Native values.
“People are a lot more concerned about preserving the culture now, with Western influences or influences from the Lower 48–they want to make sure that everybody is holding on to what they’ve learned from their elders,” Johnston said between hugs from athletes, parents, and coaches after the awards ceremony. “The games have actually grown because of that.”
Even the podium stresses the value of mutual strength. The top spot is too high to climb up without help from someone you beat on your way to the top.